Dame Deborah James has thanked well-wishers who have raised over £5.7million for the ‘most humbling five days of her life’ and said she plans to die with a ‘massive smile, no regrets and a big glass of champagne’.
The cancer-stricken mother-of-two, 40, enjoyed an afternoon of ‘tea and champagne’ with Prince William on Friday as he presented her with a Damehood for her tireless campaigning and fundraising efforts.
She took to Instagram this afternoon to post pictures of the Duke with herself and her family, saying the visit gave them ‘so much to smile about in the sadness’.
The BBC podcaster told her 686,000 followers: ‘I believe I may have had the most surreal, mind blowing, humbling 5 days of my life.
‘I cannot thank you for your generosity at launching the @bowelbabefund which now stands at £5.7 million, and to the @dukeandduchessofcambridge for going above and beyond to make a very special memory happen yesterday.
‘Can’t quite believe I’m actually a Dame! My family are being amazing and as emotional as it all is, we are finding so much to smile about in the sadness.’
She admitted to ‘getting weaker and more tired’, but continued: ‘I always said I wanted to slide in sideways when my time is up, with a massive smile, no regrets and a big glass of champagne! Still my intention!!!’
Dame Deborah has raised more than £5.7 million for Cancer Research UK through her Bowelbabe fund on Just Giving. Having set her original target at £250,000, she has now raised more than 22 times her goal.
Prince William meets with Deborah James to award her her Damehood for her tireless campaigning and fundraising for cancer research
Dame Deborah (centre, with husband Sebastien Bowen left, while children Eloise, 12 and Hugo, 14, back) told her more than 630,000 Instagram followers how ‘kind’ William (right) ‘made everyone feel at ease’, adding that he was ‘welcome back any time.’
‘Prince William actually came to our house!’: Deborah shares pictures from the Duke of Cambridge’s visit on Friday, in which he awarded her her Damehood
Dame Deborah reached the £5 million milestone on Friday after donations from more than 240,000 supporters, including William and his wife Kate.
Her Just Giving page said it is ‘raising money to fund clinical trials and research into personalised medicine for cancer patients and supporting campaigns to raise awareness of bowel cancer’.
She said she was ‘completely lost for words’ after reaching the phenomenal amount. TV presenter Lorraine Kelly responded to the news, saying: ‘This is just wonderful – tears and laughter – love you @bowelbabe.’
It came just hours after she was made a dame by the Queen for her commitment to raising awareness and funds for bowel cancer following her diagnosis in 2016.
The monarch led praise for Deborah, saying she was ‘pleased’ to approve the Damehood, while the Prime Minister said ‘if ever an honour was richly deserved, this is it’.
In a post on Instagram on Friday night, Dame Deborah wrote: ‘Thanks to an incredibly generous donation earlier today, and to every single person who’s donated to the @bowelbabefund, we’ve just reached the unbelievable total of £5m.
‘We’re completely lost for words. This is all just beyond anything we could have ever imagined. The last five days have been surreal.’
She added: ‘Thank you for putting a huge smile on my face, and helping us to launch a legacy to hopefully impact a lifetime cutting edge cancer care.’
Since being diagnosed with bowel cancer six years ago, the former headteacher has kept her Instagram and social media followers up to date with her treatments.
She has now raised more than £5.1 million with her Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK – averaging more than £1.2m per day this week.
Having set her original target at £250,000, she has now raised more than 20 times her goal.
On Thursday night, Number 10 confirmed that James is to be made a dame, saying: ‘The Queen has been pleased to approve that the honour of Damehood be conferred upon Deborah James.’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: ‘If ever an honour was richly deserved, this is it. Deborah has been an inspiration and her honesty, warmth and courage has been a source of strength to so many people.
Deborah James (pictured) was honoured with a Damehood after raising millions of pounds for charity since Monday as she revealed she was receiving end-of-life care
The former headteacher (pictured right, with children Eloise, 12, Hugo, 14 and husband Sebastien Bowen) was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016 and has kept her more than 500,000 Instagram followers up to date with her treatments.
Deborah James has written letters and bought gifts for her children Hugo, 14, and daughter, Eloise, 12, and wants to cuddle them for the last time before she dies
The nation has been moved by her tragic story in recent days, with at least £1million in donations now being made every day made on the Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK page she set up. Today it surpassed £5.1 million (pictured)
The Queen led praise for the tragic mother-of-two, saying she was ‘pleased’ to approve the damehood yesterday, while the Prime Minister said ‘if ever an honour was richly deserved, this is it’.
On Thursday night, Number 10 confirmed that James is to be made a dame, saying: ‘The Queen has been pleased to approve that the honour of damehood be conferred upon Deborah James.’ Pictured, Deborah James (left) with her family on Mother’s Day this year
Deborah James explained how she’d had ‘hard conversations’ with the children, but put her full faith in husband Sebastien Bowen – a London banker with whom she has been married more than 13 years. She has urged him to find love again as long as it’s not a ‘bimbo’
Deborah announced earlier this week in a heartbreaking message that active treatment for her bowel cancer was stopping and that she was moving to hospice at home care
‘Through her tireless campaigning and by so openly sharing her experience she has not only helped in our fight against this terrible disease, she has ensured countless others with the Big C have not felt alone.
‘I hope this recognition from Her Majesty – backed I’m sure by the whole country – will provide some comfort to Deborah and her family at this difficult time. My thoughts are with them and Deborah should know she has the country’s love and gratitude.’
She has now revealed her shock at being made a Dame, telling The Sun: ‘I don’t know what to say. I’m blown away and feel incredibly honoured. I don’t feel like I deserve this. I can’t tell you what this means to my family, it’s so much to take in.’
Ms James said that she would love for the fundraiser to reach £5 million by the weekend.
Dame Deborah’s children Hugo and Eloise said they were ‘speechless’ and ‘so, so proud’, while husband Seb said a damehood was ‘something that she would never have dreamt of but it is so truly deserved’.
Damehoods and knighthoods are usually listed in the New Year or Queen’s Birthday Honours, but in exceptional circumstances some are announced at other times.
The teacher-turned-podcaster has moved millions as she announced in a heartbreaking message that active treatment for her bowel cancer was stopping and that she was moving to hospice at home care to die.
The mother-of two is preparing to spend her final hours on her parents’ lawn surrounded by family, drinking Champagne, having been told by her hospice nurses: ‘You are dying, you can drink what you like.’
In a tearful final newspaper interview she said last night: ‘The one thing my family know is I am petrified of being alone. I don’t want to die alone.’ And when asked about the end of her life approaching she said: ‘I have moments when I just sob uncontrollably, but I can’t spend my last few days crying, it would be such a waste. So I’m trying to compartmentalise my death’.
She said she has started her ‘to-do death list’ to support son Hugo, 14, and daughter, Eloise, 12, when she is gone, and has urged her husband Sebastien to find love, with the caveat: ‘Don’t be taken for a ride, don’t marry a bimbo’.
Dame Deborah said she has written letters for her children to help them with their first dates and wedding days, and will buy Hugo ‘a nice pen or wallet or cufflinks’ and Eloise ‘Tiffany bracelets and earrings’ to remember her – as well as some presents and postcards from her for the future.
Her funeral is also planned where she will be cremated, but she hopes her ashes will be kept in the family kitchen ‘for a while’ before being scattered.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge also paid tribute to the cancer-stricken BBC podcaster, declaring that she has ‘captured the heart of the nation’, after her fundraiser passed £3.3million yesterday and continues to rise at a rate of £1million every 24 hours.
Steve Bland, co-host of the You, Me And The Big C podcast alongside Deborah James, praised the bowel cancer campaigner after her research fundraising initiative reached £4 million.
Appearing on BBC Breakfast, he said: ‘It is amazing, but this is what Deborah does. Deborah deals in the extraordinary. This is what she has done for five years.
‘Everyone is focusing on the last five days, but actually Deb has been doing this for five years, ever since she was diagnosed with incurable cancer five years ago, and since then she has just been trying to help people.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have paid tribute to cancer-stricken BBC podcaster Deborah James, after her fundraiser passed £3 million yesterday
In a tweet, William and Kate said: ‘Every now and then, someone captures the heart of the nation with their zest for life & tenacious desire to give back to society.’ Pictured, the couple during their visit to Glasgow, Scotland, on May 11
Deborah James’ announcement that she is moving into hospice care in full:
In an emotional post shared to Instagram, Deborah said her body ‘was not playing ball’ and she was spending ‘most of the day sleeping’
‘The message I never wanted to write. We have tried everything, but my body simply isn’t playing ball. My active care has stopped and I am now moved to hospice at home care, with my incredible family all around me and the focus is on making sure I’m not in pain and spending time with them.
‘Nobody knows how long I’ve got left but I’m not able to walk, I’m sleeping most of the days, and most things I took for granted are pipe dreams. I know we have left no stone unturned. But even with all the innovative cancer drugs in the world or some magic new breakthrough, my body just can’t continue anymore.
‘In over 5 years of writing about how I thought it would be my final Christmas, how I wouldn’t see my 40th birthday nor see my kids go to secondary school – I never envisaged writing the one where I would actually say goodbye.
‘I think it’s been the rebellious hope in me.
‘But I don’t think anyone can say the last 6 months has exactly been kind! It’s all heartbreaking to be going through but I’m surrounded by so much love that if anything can help me through I hope that will.
‘I always knew there was one thing I always wanted to do before I died. I have always over the years raised as much awareness and money for the charities that are closest to me. @cr_uk @royalmarsden @bowelcanceruk
‘As a result, the @bowelbabefund is being established and I’d love nothing more than for you to help it flourish. Please visit bowelbabe.org for all the info and to donate (link in Bio).
‘All I ask if you ever read a column, followed my Instagram, listened to the podcast or saw me dressed as a poo for no reason. Please buy me a drink to see me out this world, by donating the cost to @bowelbabefund which will enable us to raise funds for further life saving research into cancer. To give more Deborah’s more time!
‘Right now for me it’s all about taking it a day at a time, step by step and being grateful for another sunrise. My whole family are around me and we will dance through this together, sunbathing and laughing (I’ll cry!!) at every possible moment!
‘You are all incredible, thank you for playing your part in my journey. No regrets.
‘Enjoy life x Deborah’
‘She has been banging the drum over and over and over and over – on bowel cancer symptoms, working hard to get drugs approved that she knew would help her but help loads of other people too.
‘While the last five days have been amazing – the £4 million is incredible – there are people all over the country walking around enjoying their children’s birthday parties because she has basically saved their lives.’
Bland said James had messaged him to say she would be watching the interview from her parents’ home in Woking, Surrey, where she is receiving end-of-life care.
He added: ‘I don’t know what target she will have in her mind now. Five, I guess.’
In the heartbreaking interview with The Times, Deborah also revealed how she will record letters for her children to open after she’s died, including advice for them on how to act on a first date or what to do on their wedding day.
Ms James said she’s been in hospital for months, but since undergoing hospice care, she has been planning her last hours on the lawn with her family and drinking champagne, as staff joked with her: ‘You are dying, you can drink what you like.’
The nation has been moved by her tragic story in recent days, with at least £1million in donations now being made every day to her Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK page, which she set up.
Ms James earlier spoke of wanting to die at her parents’ house in Woking, to spare son, Hugo, 14, and daughter, Eloise, 12, from constant reminders in their London home, which she won’t visit again because of the stairs. She said: ‘I can’t use my legs any more and I’m incredibly weak… my husband must lift me for everything’.
She explained how she’d had to break the news to the children, but put her full faith in husband Sebastien Bowen – a London banker she married back in 2008.
The couple briefly split up seven years later and began divorce proceedings, but soon got back together after agreeing to counselling to be on better terms for their children.
Speaking to The Times she revealed she has issued him with ‘strict instructions’ to her ‘incredible’ husband Sebastien Bowen to find love again after her death.
‘It’s been hideous telling my children. My husband Sebastien has been incredible, he has dropped everything and is with me 24/7. My first thought was [that] I don’t want my children to see me like this. I didn’t think I would be able to speak to them without crying, but I’d love one last cuddle with them.
‘We have had a string of emotional conversations that have escalated very quickly from supportive care to end-of-life care.
‘My husband Sebastien has been incredible, he has dropped everything and is with me 24/7.
‘My first thought was [that] I don’t want my children to see me like this. I didn’t think I would be able to speak to them without crying, but I’d love one last cuddle with them.’
On Monday, Miss James, announced that despite having 17 tumours removed and undergoing new procedures she has been moved to hospice care because her ‘body simply isn’t playing ball’.
She said she is now trying to ‘compartmentalise’ her death so that she can focus on her ‘to-do death list’ which includes making memory boxes and recording letters and ‘funny messages’ for her children.
‘I know materialistic things don’t matter, but I want to buy Hugo a nice pen or wallet or cufflinks,’ she said. ‘I’m going to buy my daughter some Tiffany bracelets and earrings.
‘They will have all the memories, but I want them to have a few presents in the future. I also want to write them postcards, but I have to be honest, I get really tired.’
She added: ‘At 12 and 14 I hope they will remember me, but [they are] still very young, so my image will fade and they will have to rely on videos or photos.’
She has also imparted instructions for her husband, whom she married in 2008.
‘I want him to move on,’ she said. ‘He’s a handsome man, I’m, like, ‘Don’t be taken for a ride, don’t marry a bimbo, find someone else who can make you laugh like we did [together].’
Miss James has moved to her parents bungalow in Woking as she is no longer able to use the stairs in her townhouse in Barnes, south west London because ‘cancer is eating me up’.
She said she wants ‘to die listening to my family,’ adding: ‘I just want to hear their banter and the normal buzz of life as I go.’
She has planned her funeral to ease the ‘burden’ on her loved ones and would like to be cremated.
‘I’m the kind of person that wouldn’t mind staying in the top drawer in the kitchen for a while,’ she said.
In a tweet on Wednesday, William and Kate said: ‘Every now and then, someone captures the heart of the nation with their zest for life & tenacious desire to give back to society.
‘Bowelbabe is one of those special people. Her tireless efforts to raise awareness of bowel cancer & end the stigma of treatment are inspiring.
‘We are so sad to hear her recent update but pleased to support the Bowelbabe Fund, which will benefit the The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust among others.
‘Deborah, our thoughts are with you, your family and your friends. Thank you for giving hope to so many who are living with cancer. W & C.’
That evening, the managing director of The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, Antonia Dalmahoy, thanked all of those who have donated.
BBC podcast host Deborah James, who has incurable bowel cancer, previously choked back tears today as she thanked everyone who donated to her cancer fundraiser that raised a staggering £2.5 million. It has surpassed £3million
‘The national outpouring of love and support for Deborah and her Bowel Babe Fund has been absolutely phenomenal and has really lifted her spirits,’ she said.
‘We’d like to thank everyone who has donated to the Fund, for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, Cancer Research UK and Bowel Cancer UK. This sum of money will make a huge difference to people with cancer and create a lasting legacy for Deborah.’
It came after she said she is is preparing to ‘surrender to the inevitable’ and is in end-of-life hospice care surrounded by her family, in a heartfelt ‘final’ newspaper column. Ms James wrote that her body had been left ’emaciated’ by five years of battling bowel cancer.
Charities and organisations set to benefit from the fundraising have lined up to thank her for her efforts.
Michelle Mitchell, chief executive at Cancer Research UK said: ‘Since being diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016, Deborah James has shown an incredible commitment to campaigning, fundraising and raising awareness of cancer.
‘Even in this most challenging time, her determination to raise money and awareness is inspiring and we’re honoured to be supporting Deborah and her family in establishing the Bowelbabe Fund.
‘This fund will raise awareness of cancer alongside funds for clinical trials and research into personalised medicine, with the aim of creating new and kinder treatments for cancer patients and giving them more time with their loved ones.
‘The fund will support the work of Cancer Research UK and those causes she and her family are passionate about, for example Bowel Cancer UK, The Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden.
‘We’ve been overwhelmed by the support for the Bowelbabe Fund so far, massively exceeding its target within hours. It’s a true testament to how many people’s lives Deborah has touched with her honesty, humour and compassion.’
A spokesperson from The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity added: ‘Deborah is an absolute inspiration to so many people with cancer, and a passionate supporter of The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. It’s typically selfless of her to spend what precious time she has left fundraising for us, Cancer Research UK and Bowel Cancer UK.
‘The Bowel Babe Fund will, as Deborah has set out, help fund clinical trials and research into personalised medicine for cancer patients and supporting campaigns to raise awareness of bowel cancer. This may include developing new drugs, and new ways of diagnosing cancer at an earlier stage.
‘As well as this fundraising legacy, Deborah’s work over the last five years to raise awareness of the symptoms of bowel cancer and the importance of early diagnosis in improving survival, will have saved and extended countless lives.’
Ms James had earlier spoken of her connection with her family to the BBC, saying they were ‘really loving’ and that she ‘adored’ them.
Ms James told the BBC: ‘I have a really loving family who I adore. Honestly, they’re incredible and all I knew I wanted was to come here and be able to relax knowing that everything was okay.
‘I’ve had some really hard conversations during the last week. You think, ‘Gosh, how can anyone have those conversations?’ and then you find yourself in the middle of them.
‘And people are very nice, but you’re talking about your own death and I’ve had five years to prepare for my death.’
The interviewer told the mother-of-two, ‘I know it’s not easy’, as she struggled to speak around her tears, to which he eventually replied: ‘It’s hard. It’s really hard.
‘The thing that I know, because I trust my husband – he’s just the most wonderful man and so is my family, and I know that my kids are going to be more than looked after and surrounded by love.
‘You always want to know as a mother – are your kids going to be okay? And my kids are going to be fine. But it doesn’t mean I’m not going to miss every chance I could have had with them.’
Remembering her former podcast co-host Rachael Bland, who died of breast cancer in 2018, Ms James told the BBC: ‘ I’m really scared. I don’t know how she could deal with such a ‘this is what I’m going to do’ [approach], I’m petrified.
‘I can’t make a deal with the devil anymore unfortunately. I just feel gutted not to have more life, ‘cos you know me, I love life so much.
The mother-of-two has spent months recovering after she almost died in January due to a medical emergency
The mother-of-two, who has faced a challenging six months with her cancer treatment, said she felt ‘heartbroken’
BBC podcast host Deborah James, who has incurable bowel cancer, revealed in April after she was discharged after more than a month in hospital. Pictured, leaving the Royal Marsden Hospital
Deborah, who has incurable bowel cancer, revealed how she ‘nearly died’ in January in an ‘acute medical emergency’. She shared this photo from hospital
‘But I do hope that all of our stories and the podcast and everything we’ve shared over the past few years has saved lives.
‘I just knew that I wanted to ensure I could leave enough money for them to do something meaningful, that would mean that we could fund projects that I myself would have benefited from 5 years ago to give me life.
‘Because you just never know do you, when that next breakthrough is going to come, but I know we have the skills and passion in this country to make things happen, but we just need to fund it properly.’
Ms James told host Tony Livesey how she was still making her way through a list of ‘death admin’ she needed to do, but the priority was remaining as comfortable as possible.
‘I can’t walk, I can’t stand, I can’t go to the loo – I can’t do really basic stuff. I’ve been doing a lot of sleeping. Just spending time watching people that I love, to just know that they are okay.
‘The more I tell myself that they are going to be okay, I know they are surrounded by love. I know they are surrounded by support – they will be fine.’
Signing off tearfully in the final episode of her podcast, she told listeners: ‘That’s it from me, I can’t believe it, which is a very sad thing to say. I’m pleased I’ve got to the point where I can say it. We’ll see each other again, somewhere, somehow, dancing. Until then, please, please, just enjoy life because it’s so precious. All I want right now is more time and more life.’
She then joked: ‘And check your poo. I can’t leave on any other word except from check your poo.’
At the start of the year, Deborah, who shares her children Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12, with her husband Sebastien, announced she had ‘nearly died’ in hospital, calling it the ‘hardest’ part of her 5-year cancer battle, and was admitted as an in-patient earlier this month.
She was told early on in her diagnosis that she might not live beyond five years — a milestone that passed on Christmas of 2021.
Writing in her Instagram post, she said: ‘Nobody knows how long I’ve got left but I’m not able to walk, I’m sleeping most of the days, and most things I took for granted are pipe dreams. I know we have left no stone unturned.
‘But even with all the innovative cancer drugs in the world or some magic new breakthrough, my body just can’t continue anymore.’
‘In over 5 years of writing about how I thought it would be my final Christmas, how I wouldn’t see my 40th birthday nor see my kids go to secondary school – I never envisaged writing the one where I would actually say goodbye.
‘I think it’s been the rebellious hope in me.’
Tributes to Deborah called her a ‘true inspiration’ and a ‘force to be reckoned with’ when it came to talking about bowel cancer.
Her podcast co-host, Lauren Mahon, shared a lengthy tribute on Instagram, saying that hearts have been ‘shattered into thousands of pieces’ by Deborah’s announcement and are simultaneously ‘completely bursting with pride’.
Ms Mahon said that she is ‘not ready to accept what’s happening right now’ and asked for people to keep Deborah’s parents, siblings and family in their ‘hearts, thoughts and prayers’.
She also urged people to support the new fundraising campaign, Bowelbabe Fund, for Cancer Research UK.
Deborah’s fundraising efforts, adding: ‘She did it! Bowelbabe did that. Let’s keep it going. Two mil anyone? Proud doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s awe.
It has since raised more than £3million in less than 72 hours after it was launched. It will be spent on funding clinical trials and research into personalised medicine that could result in new treatments for cancer patients, and continued support to raise awareness of cancer.
Discussing how difficult the last six months have been, James said while she was really happy that the ‘big gun chemo’ she endured has slowed her cancer’s growth, which had been ‘on the march’, it had been an exhausting time.
In the summer, James was told she had an aggressive new tumour that had wrapped itself around her bile duct – requiring a life-saving stay in hospital – and a stent fitted to stop her liver from failing.
The stent fitted to stop her liver failing ‘stopped working’ in December.
She explained to her followers at the time how hopes at having a ‘quick replacement operation’ had turned into a ‘nightmare’.
She said: ‘I’m now at the mercy of hopefully some super ‘magic medicine miracle’ – but then I always have been, and any chance is a chance right?
‘All I ever say Is all I want is hope and options.’
Last year, James shared that her cancer, which has been kept at bay by pioneering treatment, was back again and she was forced to endure a 12th operation.
The West London mother-of-two, a deputy head, was diagnosed ‘late’ with incurable bowel cancer in 2016. She has frequently said that as a vegetarian runner, she was the last person doctors expected to get the disease.
After sharing her experiences on living with the disease on social media, Deborah became known as the ‘Bowel Babe’ and began writing a column for the Sun.
In 2018, Deborah joined Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland to present the award-winning podcast You, Me and the Big C on Radio 5 Live.
Bland tragically died of breast cancer on September 5th that year; her husband Steve Bland now co-presents the show.
HOW DEPUTY HEAD TURNED SOCIAL MEDIA STAR HAS TRANSFORMED BOWEL CANCER AWARENESS
In 2018, Deborah (left) joined Lauren Mahon (front) and Rachael Bland (right) to present the award-winning podcast You, Me and the Big C on Radio 5 Live. Bland tragically died of breast cancer on September 5th that year; her husband Steve Bland now co-presents the show
During her treatment, Deborah told followers on Instagram ‘By my general lack of being on here (dancing!), that Things have moved (in the wrong direction) very quickly cancer wise.’ Pictured: Deborah James undergoing a scan at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London
‘We started as three women on a journey. It breaks my heart I’ll be the only one left’: Cancer podcaster Deborah James’s co-presenter Lauren Mahon salutes the friend who taught her ‘to live – and live well’
By Kathryn Knight for the Daily Mail
Lauren Mahon has run the gamut of almost every emotion you can think of in the past week. ‘You can ask me how I am feeling at any point during the day, and it will be different,’ the 37-year-old reflects.
‘There’s anguish and grief, numbness and shock, but also sheer elation, pride and gratitude at what Deb has achieved.’
Deb being Deborah James, the 40-year-old former deputy headteacher who was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer just over five years ago. She courageously made it her mission to draw attention to the disease, which went on to become stage four and incurable.
Using the moniker ‘Bowelbabe’, she wrote a frank and fearless blog before becoming one of a trio of presenters bringing us the equally frank, often very funny and blisteringly honest BBC podcast You, Me And The Big C.
Lauren, a former social media manager who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 aged 31, and the late Rachael Bland were the other two points of this powerhouse broadcasting triangle — their work has won countless awards — until Rachael’s tragic death from breast cancer in September 2018 at the age of 40, just six months after the podcast was launched.
Rachael’s widower Steve subsequently took her place, and the podcast has continued to go from strength to strength, even as Deborah navigated one cancer-related health crisis after another. ‘She has always been the comeback kid,’ as Lauren puts it.
BBC Radio 5 live presenter Rachael Bland (L), bloggers Lauren (Girl Vs Cancer) Mahon (M) and Deborah (BowelBabe) James (R), podcast You, Me and the Big C
Sadly not this time. In a heart-breaking post on social media earlier this week, Deborah revealed that she had run out of treatment options and was now receiving end-of-life hospice care at her parents’ home in Woking, Surrey. ‘Nobody knows how long I’ve got left,’ she wrote. Showing the lack of self-pity that has characterised her journey, she urged readers to do something positive to ‘see her out’ by donating to her cancer research fund.
She had hoped to raise £250,000 but, at the time of writing, the sum had surpassed £5 million, with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge among those to donate and pay tribute to her bravery.
On Thursday, it was announced that Deborah would be made a dame in recognition of her tireless work.
Little wonder that Lauren’s eyes fill up —as they do frequently during our interview — when she contemplates her friend’s legacy. ‘I’m so proud of her,’ she says. ‘Her work has saved so many lives already, but she will save and prolong so many more because of this money.’
Of the damehood, Lauren says: ‘Of course Deb is a dame — it’s like she was born to be. It’s a great testament to all she has achieved and what she means to everyone. I couldn’t be prouder of her.’
Lauren Mahon has run the gamut of almost every emotion you can think of in the past week (pictured with Deborah)
Nonetheless, it is a bittersweet achievement, not just for Deborah’s family — her parents, sister, brother, husband Sebastien Bowen and children Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12 — but for all those who knew her well.
Lauren is among them, for while she first met Deborah only four years ago, their shared experience forged a unique and unbreakable bond.
‘We’ve been through something so powerful together — what we have created with the podcast has changed the way cancer is talked about and experienced in the UK,’ Lauren says. ‘The thing I’m really struggling with is that Rachael, Deb and I started this together as a threesome and the prospect of not having either of them around is difficult. I can’t get my head around it.’
That’s all too evident, with Lauren veering from disbelief to tangible grief as she reflects on the events of the past few days.
‘It’s such a weird space to be in,’ she says. ‘I feel like I am mourning someone who is not yet gone. I am not in denial, but at the same time there is this disbelief that this really is it.’
Monday marks five years since Lauren was given the all-clear — an important milestone, although she takes nothing for granted.
Deb being Deborah James, the 40-year-old former deputy headteacher who was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer just over five years ago. She courageously made it her mission to draw attention to the disease, which went on to become stage four and incurable
Charismatic and down-to-earth, Lauren had a carefree girl-about-town life in her native London when she found a lump in her breast in May 2016. She let it be, hoping it would go away, until a friend urged her to get it checked.
A few weeks later, she was sitting in a breast clinic getting her diagnosis: she had stage three cancer and an aggressive 2.8cm-long tumour.
‘I knew it was a process I had to get through,’ she says. Months of gruelling chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a lumpectomy followed. By the time she was given the all-clear, she had set up GirlvsCancer, a vivid, honest and relatable blog platform where women can share their stories.
It also sells merchandise which has raised tens of thousands of pounds for cancer charities.
In 2018, the site brought her to the attention of BBC journalist Rachael, who had been diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in November 2016 and had come up with the idea of a podcast to raise awareness. A fan of Lauren and Deborah’s fearless dispatches from the cancer frontline, she asked them to come on board.
The accomplished broadcaster, the plain-speaking deputy head and feisty girl-next-door Lauren were in some ways an unlikely trio, yet immediately hit it off. ‘In terms of the circles we operated in, we never would have met if it wasn’t for cancer,’ Lauren reflects.
‘In terms of our taste and things we liked, we couldn’t be more different, but we couldn’t love each other more — and being different is what made it work, as we were all coming from different points of view and experiences of life.’
On Thursday, it was announced that Deborah would be made a dame in recognition of her tireless work. Pictured: Deborah (left) with her family on Mother’s Day this year
Amazingly, given the instant success of the podcast, the trio had never got together before they took to the microphone at a BBC studio in Salford in February 2018.
Deborah and Lauren met for the first time at Euston station to catch the train to Manchester ahead of that first recording session, and Lauren smiles as she recalls the beautifully turned-out brunette heading towards her in a big floppy hat and velvet blazer.
‘It became a joke that whenever we boarded the train to Manchester I looked like I was getting the bus to Glastonbury and she looked like she was stepping onto a yacht,’ Lauren laughs. ‘She always looks glamorous in every situation.’ There was instant chemistry. ‘We both sat down and started chatting and we just didn’t stop talking,’ she says.
The same spark was present when they met Rachael in the studio and, once translated onto the airwaves, it made for compelling listening.
‘I think that’s why the podcast flows so naturally because it is a chat between people who have lived and experienced cancer. There is no right or wrong, it is just how we were feeling.’
It is certainly ground-breaking —in a world where cancer is often spoken about in whispers, the trio brought humour and candour to the subject, covering everything from sex to body image through the prism of their own experiences. In the process, they got people to take responsibility for their own health.
‘There’s a stigma behind cancer diagnosis; this feeling around it that you’re going to die,’ says Lauren. ‘And, unfortunately, that’s a fate Rachael has suffered, and Deb is facing, but what that does is it stops people from going to get checked.
‘They’re terrified they’re going to die, so they like to bury their head in the sand. All we wanted to do was get people to check themselves because, if diagnosed, early survival rates are great, and to let the general populous know that this is what cancer looks like.’
Nonetheless, both Deborah and Lauren had to face the most dreaded of outcomes when Rachael died six months after that first episode was released. Her health deteriorated with alarming speed in the final weeks, and she left behind her husband and her then two-year-old son, Freddie. ‘We only had Rachael for a very short time,’ says Lauren. ‘Deb and I talk often about the fact that we’ve done more series of the podcast with Steve than we have with Rachael, which is crazy. I do still feel robbed, even after all these years.’
The aftermath was bewildering, with their grief unfolding against a blaze of recognition for their broadcasting work. ‘We were so sad we lost our friend, but then the podcast started winning all these awards and that felt like such a celebratory thing for Rachael, as she had been so clear that she wanted us to get the message out there.’
Into this baffling mix came guilt, too. ‘I remember saying to Deb, ‘Why her, not me? I don’t have any children. I don’t have a husband,’ ‘ recalls Lauren.
Deborah and Lauren met for the first time at Euston station to catch the train to Manchester ahead of that first recording session
‘She told me off, obviously. But it was hard not to feel that it was just desperately unfair.’
A year later, Steve, 41, met NHS nurse Amy, and the two are set to marry this year. Lauren fervently believes Rachael would have given the union her blessing.
‘There were a couple of women sniffing round Steve after we lost Rachael, and Deborah and I would say, ‘Don’t you dare go near her,’ ‘ says Lauren.
‘We were very protective. But Amy is just an absolute angel. We love Amy and she makes Steve so happy, and Freddie loves her.
‘And Rachael wanted Steve to be happy again, and she would more than approve.’
Now it is Deborah’s husband, Seb, who faces the painful prospect of a future without his wife. With typical candour, Deborah has already revealed that she has given him permission to marry again, as she confronts a fate that she has dreaded since her terminal diagnosis.
Lauren believes these conversations about the end will be particularly hard for Deborah, the ‘wild, funny’ friend with whom she has shared nights out and endless WhatsApp banter, but who never really liked to talk about the reality of death.
‘We’ve had multiple conversations with Deb when she was panicking, saying, ‘Oh my God, I think it is it this time,’ but she’s never gone into the emotional depth of it — that is just not her way,’ says Lauren. ‘She never really wanted to talk about death itself.’
Instead, Deborah chose what she herself called ‘ruthless hope’, even in the face of endless challenges which escalated rapidly in the last year
Instead, Deborah chose what she herself called ‘ruthless hope’, even in the face of endless challenges which escalated rapidly in the last year.
She spent the majority of the past few months in hospital after a serious bleed and infections, and in January had to be resuscitated after her organs failed. ‘She almost died, and then she came back,’ says Lauren. ‘We have always seen her as the girl with nine lives.’
Yet, with her body no longer responding to treatment, she has had to accept that she is in the final days of her five-year journey.
Lauren and Steve had had an inkling that all was not well for some time.
‘She’d gone pretty quiet,’ Lauren recalls. ‘We know Deb as ‘all singing, all dancing’, so we know the signs.’ Finally, they received a text from Deborah last Friday.
‘She’d sent a group message to all of us who worked on the podcast, just letting us know that things weren’t working and what her plan was for the fund,’ says Lauren, her eyes filling up once more.
‘She couldn’t believe she was having to write the message, and she thanked us for being part of her life. As you can imagine, I didn’t sleep that night.’
How to respond to such a note? For Lauren there was only one way. ‘I refuse to say goodbye,’ she says. ‘I just want to tell her I love her until she can’t receive the messages any more.’
The feeling is clearly mutual: in her final podcast this week, Deborah — not one for outbursts of emotion — singled out her co-host, telling her: ‘I do love you Lauren, I just don’t tell you.’
‘That was our running joke,’ says Lauren. ‘I’m so touchy-feely and Deb cringes at that.’
She spent the majority of the past few months in hospital after a serious bleed and infections, and in January had to be resuscitated after her organs failed
Typically, too, she tells Lauren to move on and embrace being cancer-free. ‘She is forever telling me that I should be finding other ways to use my creativity, that cancer shouldn’t be all that I do,’ she says.
That has proved easier said than done: Lauren had a breakdown last year after experiencing so much trauma and loss. ‘I was also just constantly terrified that every ache, every pain was the cancer coming back,’ she says.
‘It’s a really normal response to a trauma such as getting told you’ve got cancer at 31, but with good medicine and therapy I can actually say I don’t wake up thinking about it every day any more.’ Happily single, she hopes to meet someone one day, and is pleased that she took her mother’s advice to freeze her eggs before undergoing cancer treatment, which would have made her infertile.
‘At the time, when you are told your breasts can kill you, you just want to focus on that. But Mum was the one who said that the future Lauren might want babies, and I am very glad she did.’
Deborah’s message, meanwhile, is all about the present. ‘Deb taught me to live, and live well, and not to beat yourself up too much,’ says Lauren.
‘If you want to eat the cake, eat the cake. If you want to have a glass of rosé, have a glass of rosé. Book the flights, do the things you want, don’t wait for life to happen to you.
‘Deb is testament to all of this. I look at what she’s done over the last five years and I’m in absolute awe of her.’ Who among us does not feel the same?
Courageous to the end, Deborah has said she hopes to end her days listening to the normal hubbub of family life.
‘Just knowing her and her family, it’s going to be difficult, but they will make sure it’s not too sad… there will be laughter, and there will be champagne, and there will be love,’ says Lauren.
‘I’m so glad that when she does finally close her eyes she will know that she’s made her mark.’